The Chicago Cubs are still a week away from the All-Star break, yet two pitchers are already on the verge of reaching career-high workloads.
Right-hander Keegan Thompson and left-hander Justin Steele are among the highlights of an otherwise dismal season for the Cubs. Through the first three-plus months, the consistent pitchers both feature an ERA+ over 100, which is league average. Left-hander Drew Smyly, who is coming off the injured list Sunday to try to prevent a four-game sweep at Dodger Stadium following Saturday’s 4-2 loss, is the only other Cubs starter above that mark.
Thompson, 27, and Steele, 26, are already approaching uncharted territory with their workload.
Steele, who has spent the entire season in the rotation, has thrown 76⅓ innings through 16 starts. He is less than five innings from surpassing his combined innings from 2021 between Triple-A Iowa and the majors. Now in his ninth season in the organization, Steele has recorded only one season with more innings than last year. He threw 98⅔ innings at High A in 2017 before Tommy John surgery ended his season.
Thompson’s 77 innings over 19 appearances, including 11 starts, have already pushed him past his 2021 season total (67 innings) with Iowa and the Cubs. His single-season career high since he was drafted five years ago by the Cubs came in 2018 with 129⅔ innings. Thompson could exceed that by early September.
“It’s just doing everything you can possible in between starts to recover, whether it’s taking a day of no throwing or whatever,” Thompson said to the Tribune Saturday. “Recovery is the biggest thing.”
Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told the Tribune there isn’t a hard innings limit for Thompson or Steele. He anticipates the Cubs getting creative with how they could manage the duo’s respective workload over the final three months of the season.
Among the options the Cubs, according to Hottovy: skipping a start if there is a scheduled off day, rearranging the rotation coming out of the All-Star Break when the Cubs open in Philadelphia on June 22 or find spots to give an additional day between starts. Steele is getting extended time off because of the impending birth of his child; after starting Monday in Milwaukee, he did not join the Cubs in Los Angeles and went on the paternity list Saturday.
“It’s an important way to continue to minimize or just control the amount of innings these guys are going to eat this year,” Hottovy said to the Tribune. “But there’s a part of me too that we never have the right answer. … Guys don’t throw 180 innings until they do. Guys can or can’t. And I think we play this game a lot of times trying to protect guys and say, OK, maybe if we do this year, it’ll happen next year. We don’t know. We don’t have an 8-ball to control the future.”
In six of Steele’s 16 starts, he was sent out for the next inning without completing the frame. Notably, in each of Steele’s last three outings, manager David Ross kept him in to begin the sixth (twice) and seventh on a batter-to-batter approach. He was unable to get through both innings cleanly, hitting the 100-pitch mark both times.
As Thompson has fully transitioned to the rotation, he is also being challenged. In four of his eight starts since the beginning of June, he began an inning and was pulled without getting out of it. Two of those instances came in the seventh inning, his first times pitching that deep into a start. A dropped fly ball by right fielder Seiya Suzuki in Friday’s loss to the Dodgers, which should have ended the sixth, instead allowed an unearned run to score and ended Thompson’s night because of a season-high pitch count (96).
There are tactical and matchup-related reasons to bring starters out for another inning while knowing they might not finish it and leave with runners on for the bullpen. But it’s also rooted in player development. Hottovy believes it’s important to pitchers, especially young and inexperienced ones, to understand what it feels like to pitch with fatigue.
The bullpen has been a strength for most of the season, allowing the Cubs to use this approach. Hottovy and Ross are confident in their relievers to handle dirty innings and high-leverage moments. So the Cubs have picked their spots to challenge starters with a particular focus on Thompson and Steele. The Cubs’ 34-51 record and fourth-place standing in the division creates more leeway for long-term vision and development.
“Sometimes when you’re sending them out there they’re gassed, and it’s like, no, we want to see what you can do, in a reasonable way,” Hottovy said. “And yeah, a lot of times it doesn’t work out. It may backfire, but we’re trying to build these guys for the postseason, for deeper into the season, deeper into games and pitching in those high-leverage situations. So I think it’s important learning opportunities for guys, and you have to juggle that when you’re also trying to win games.”
With the 13-pitcher limit and an increasingly taxed Cubs bullpen, there is a greater emphasis on getting as many outs as possible from starters. Who is available out of the bullpen on a given day can be a factor as well as matchups against the opposing lineup. Ross accounts for those scenarios when determining whether to send out starter for more.
“All of that stuff affects us,” Ross told the Tribune. “Depending on where we are at moving forward and how many multi-inning guys we have in the bullpen, like Keegan’s not down there anymore so he doesn’t give us a reset of the bullpen. So you have to be cognizant of that and understand I may need a little bit more out of you, and these guys have handled it really nicely.”
At this point of the season — 85 games in to the 162-game schedule — the Cubs are watching Thompson’s and Steele’s fatigue numbers and how they rebound start-to-start.
“Every outing we get deeper in the season, that’s more innings than they had last year, but also every outing we get deeper in the season, that’s adding innings to our total that we’ll get for next year,” Hottovy said. “We’ll make decisions when we feel like we need to.”
The Cubs ideally want Thompson and Steele pitching through the end of the season, both of their first full years in the big leagues. It will teach their body what it takes physically and mentally to grind through the final month. Hottovy explained that by September, everybody is gassed, so mentally, a pitcher needs to figure out what to do between starts to take care of himself.
“I think it’s greatly important to be able to go through that,” Hottovy added.
However, the Cubs aren’t going to push the pitchers if they believe a break is needed or they’re getting fatigued. The organization will want to be smart with how they monitor and handle workloads, particularly during September. Beyond publicly available data like Statcast velocity trends and spin rates, the Cubs have internal data to look in a pitcher’s fatigue from bullpen sessions and between-start work, including weight-room routines.
Communication and feedback from pitchers is an important part of the equation, too. For Thompson, it comes down to learning what his body needs so he can be effective the next time out. He appreciates the Cubs pushing him more, and the organization hopes these learning moments pay off when they are repositioned as postseason contenders.
“It’s been a huge confidence boost for sure,” Thompson said. “I wish I’m able to finish those innings more, but it’s nice to have them have the trust in us to go out there and try to get the last inning so we know what it’s like and have the experience. If you have the experience, you have more confidence going in for the future.”